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5G and Privacy: Should We be Worried?

Last edited: February 4, 2020
Reading time: 13 minutes, 51 seconds

Smartphone with 5GAfter the success of 3G and 4G, the time has come for the next step in mobile networking: 5G. The term is used frequently, both in a positive and a negative sense. A 5G network will give us faster and better internet, which comes with all sorts of new possibilities and opportunities. Simultaneously, however, some people worry about their privacy in a world where sharing information via the internet is easier and more normalized than ever. In this article we’ll tell you all about 5G, what kind of changes it will bring about, and which privacy concerns people have.

What is 5G?

5G stands for the fifth generation (hence the G) of mobile networks. As you might have expected, there were four previous generations. Two of them will likely sound familiar: 3G and 4G. If you’re currently on your phone without using a Wi-Fi network, you’re probably reading this article through one of those connections. 5G is the most recent version of such mobile networks. It’s still in development and only available in specific locations. Over the coming years, however, it’ll become available worldwide.

Previous generations: 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G

The different generations of our mobile network show how much technology has advanced over the years. Firstly, there was 1G, which enabled mobile phones to communicate with radio towers. This allowed us to call each other without a landline. With 2G, digital communication became possible as well: this is when we all started to text each other. The introduction of 3G meant mobile phones were able to connect to the internet. Finally, from about 2013 onwards, 4G became popular. Smartphones were suddenly able to send and receive more internet data at a higher speed. What does this mean? Well, watching Netflix on your phone has become normal, for example, while it wasn’t before. Now it’s time for the next step: 5G.

Faster internet with 5G

Speed meter 5GThe big advantage of 5G is that it reaches much higher speeds than 4G. It’ll be able to send much more data in the same amount of time. That improvement isn’t small, either: 5G makes your internet connection about a hundred times faster than that of 4G. Any delays that were considered normal with 4G, will be nonexistent with 5G. A fifth generation network will send data in less than a millisecond, while this would take on average 50 milliseconds with the previous network. In other words, 5G will take us from a relatively fast mobile network to an incredibly fast one.

The Possibilities of a 5G Network

You might wonder whether a network that fast is actually necessary. Your phone’s internet works just fine, and you can hardly watch those episodes of The Witcher any faster than you already are. Still, a faster and more stable network has more advantages than you might think. Here are a couple of them:

More stable connections for large groups of people

4G networks can become overloaded quite easily. Whenever there are large groups of people in one location (think of festivals, universities, and airports), users might experience lags. 5G ensures this won’t be a problem anymore, no matter how many smartphones there are within the same square mile.

Moreover, the demand for mobile data keeps growing. This isn’t merely because more people are getting access to mobile networks, but also because the number of devices that work with these networks keeps growing. From our smartphones to refrigerators and our smartwatches to smart baby monitors: they all use the internet to send and receive data these days. This data traffic also has to be sent through a mobile network. An effective 5G network could satisfy this growing demand. 5G allows households, companies, and public places to use more smart devices without it affecting the quality and speed of the network.

Less battery use

You need energy in order to be able to send and receive mobile data. That’s why your phone’s battery lasts a lot longer when you turn off 4G or turn on airplane mode. With 5G, it’ll take much less energy for your device to send the same amount of data. Your battery will therefore drain more slowly when using 5G instead of 4G. You’ll have to charge your phone less often, which is just that little bit more convenient. Meanwhile,  your internet speed will only increase.

New techniques and the ‘Internet of Things’

Drone mailman5G technology can be used to create new products and services. The Internet of Things (IoT), which refers to all modern devices that are able to communicate via the internet, will grow at a steady pace. Aside from that, 5G allows for higher quality video streaming. This doesn’t just mean your Netflix series will look amazing on your smartphone screen, but also that remote surgery can happen in a safer and better way. There are many more possibilities: think of automatized irrigation systems or drones delivering your mail, for example. Machines could become more automized and perform their set tasks with more efficiency, all due to the fast, endless communication offered by 5G.

Does 5G Endanger Our Privacy?

The upcoming 5G network could contribute to a true technological revolution that will connect all kinds of smart devices to each other. Our online lives will only become bigger and come to include more aspects of our real lives. This has advantages, but also comes with some serious risks, especially in terms of privacy. What happens to all that data that’s being saved and shared online? If the internet knows more about us than we know about ourselves, what does that mean? These are questions that come up again and again. Not only are there technical implications to this, it also affects the social and political world around us.

Is our personal information safe?

A functional 5G network can handle a lot of data. That means it’ll also be easier to log all kinds of information about its users. The websites you visit, your location, images of the camera in your daughter’s bedroom, and even the health information measured by your Fitbit will all be sent through 5G networks. Often, this information will be used exactly in the way you expect it to be: you’re able to check on your daughter, even when you aren’t at home, and your favorite apps use your data to improve their services.

However, your information can also be used against you. This already happens a lot: there are countless parties that are able to watch what you’re doing online. Even marketing companies and, in some cases, cybercriminals could have access to your personal data. Companies might use it to personalize the ads they show you, so they can increase the chance of you spending your money on them. When it comes to black hat hackers, the danger is more obvious: they’ll misuse your data to harm you in whatever way. The more data about us is sent through the air, the bigger the chance that this data might fall into the wrong hands. That’s why many people worry about the negative consequences of 5G. Who knows which parties might end up looking at your online data?

Huawei and 5G

China with LockHuawei is one of the companies that might be able to peek at the data that’s being sent through 5G networks. This Chinese company produces telecommunication devices and now also focuses on 5G equipment. You might know their cheap smartphones, which have become very popular the past couple of years. Now Huawei is also developing arguably the best 5G technology in the world. Their 5G antennas are stronger than those of competitors, allowing them to cover greater areas and provide a good quality network. This didn’t happen by accident: Huawei has been investing in 5G for years. Because of the high quality, buying Huawei’s products might seem like a no-brainer, but things aren’t that simple.

Since the separation of state and business isn’t as clear-cut in China as it is in most other parts of the world, many people worry about Huawei’s intentions. If our 5G technology is manufactured by a company with ties to the Chinese government, that government might be able to access our data. The fact that Huawei doesn’t clarify how their business is run, only creates more distrust. The company denies any connections to their national government, but suspicion keeps growing.

The US-China trade war

The relationship between China and the United States is complicated, especially since 2016. This affected Huawei greatly. President Trump introduced an import tax of 25% on all Chinese products, which resulted in a trade war between the countries. This caused serious issues for Huawei: their new smartphones weren’t allowed to use any American technology. While Huawei was able to import parts from other countries, the company is still struggling on other fronts. An important example of this is that they’re no longer allowed to use various Google services, including Android, on new devices.

Huawei’s reputation has suffered as well. As mentioned before, many suspect that Huawei might spy on its users for the Chinese government. On top of that, the US actively attempts to convince other countries not to cooperate with Chinese businesses, including Huawei. Several European countries are hesitant about letting the Chinese technology into their 5G networks. The table below indicates how specific countries currently think about possible 5G collaborations with Huawei.

Country Opinions on 5G collaboration with Huawei
Austria The Austrian government isn’t excluding Huawei as of yet, but wants to wait for other EU countries to decide so they can take a coordinated, joint decision.
Belgium In January of 2020 the Belgium government announced they’ll be going along with the judgement of the European Telecom Council. This means they’ll forbid the use of 5G equipment provided by untrustworthy suppliers. Huawei’s 5G devices will most likely fall into this category as well.
Czech Republic The Czech security service advises not to use any Huawei products, but both the president and the prime minister wouldn’t mind a cooperation.
France The French took on the so-called “Huawei law”: any cooperations within 5G projects are allowed to be broken off if it happens in the name of national security. The government did announce that they aren’t looking to ban specific producers. They’ll be judging every case in and of itself.
Germany The German government isn’t going to follow the US. They don’t wish to discriminate against specific parties. The German minister of Foreign Affairs claimed cooperation with Huawei is necessary in order to set up a 5G network in short term.
Hungary The plan is to include Huawei in the building of the Hungarian 5G network.
Italy After thorough investigation, the Italian government was prompted to seriously consider staying away from any 5G cooperations with Huawei and other Chinese producers. Still, ministers say Huawei should play a role in the development.
The Netherlands The Dutch decided not to allow any equipment into the core of their 5G networks when it’s produced by a state, entity or person that possibly has the intenton to misuse or cut off the Dutch communication network, or parties closely connected to such a state, entity or person. Due to the numerous accusations, Huawei could be included in this as well.
Norway The Norwegians are closely working together with the company Ericsson to get their 5G network up and running. Ties with Huawei are slowly being cut.
Poland In September 2019, Poland signed an agreement with the US to cooperated on 5G technology. Even so, Polish telecom providers don’t want to completely exclude Huawei.
Portugal The government has said it won’t exclude Chinese producers when setting up their 5G networks.
Spain Spanish parties have already cooperated with Huawei and started setting up 5G in fifteen big cities.
Sweden A law has been proposed that would keep Huawei and other Chinese sellers out of the Swedish 5G network. Partnerships and permits are already allowed to be denied if the party poses a risk to Swedish national safety.
Switzerland Switzerland has a running 5G network contract with Huawei to build a research center together.
United Kingdom President Johnson wants to ensure national security isn’t compromised. Huawei will get a limited part to play, where they won’t get access to the most sensitive parts of the 5G network.

Clearly, Europe is very divided about this issue. Especially within the EU, this is inconvenient. Multiple ministers called for the European Union to make a unilateral decision. The EU responded with the following guideline: producers that might pose a risk, can be denied a part in the 5G networks. Regardless, the situation shows that setting up a new generation of mobile networking isn’t just affected by technological advances. Political sentiments can also play a huge role.

5G and health

Smartphone Healthcare IconAside from the possible privacy risks that come with 5G, some people also fear this new network will affect their health. They believe, for example, that the radiation will make us ill. So far, there hasn’t been any research that proved 5G networks actually affect our bodies. So why do people still claim 5G radiation is bad? The fears aren’t completely ungrounded, although they aren’t entirely correct, either. They’ve most probably arisen due to the negative connotation of the word ‘radiation’. Some kinds of radiation are harmful to humans, because they change the molecules in our bodies, which can cause cancer. This is why doctors in the hospital stand behind a wall when they’re taking an x-ray of you. A small amount of this radiation isn’t so bad, but regularly exposing yourself to it is dangerous.

The radiation that comes with 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G does not mutate your molecules. It’s a different kind of radiation called non-ionising radiation. There have been tests that seem to suggest mobile network radiation is dangerous, although none of them have actual conclusive results. For example, one study found small tumors in male rats after exposing them to heavy 3G radiation. However, these results were so minimal that they could have been a coincidence. Plus, the levels of radiation used in this experiment were much higher than the levels of radiation we deal with, even if we were to use our smartphones every hour of every day.

Back in 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the RF radiation released by 4G and 5G as a possibly carcinogen, meaning it might cause cancer. Don’t fret, however. Other common products, like coffee, can be found on this same list. Whether there’s an actual connection between the radiation and cancer, is still up for debate. Research into 5G radiation is still ongoing, but the chances that anything shocking will come to light, are minimal.

When will 5G be available?

The only question remaining is when we’ll be able to use 5G. Different parties have been working on developing transmission towers, producing new smartphones, and testing all equipment on a large scale. Therefore, it won’t take long until we’re all able to enjoy this fast network.

Airplane above planet EarthAll over the world, teams are working on testing and implementing 5G networks. In the United States, for example, there are multiple cities where, provided you have the right kind of smartphone, you can use the faster 5G network already. In the United Kingdom, too, 5G is available in certain areas. South Korea has already made 5G publicly available: since the end of 2018, businesses were able to use it and by now everyone with the right device can.

In short, there are multiple places in the world where 5G networks are already up and running. The next step for governments, telecom providers, and other parties is to make 5G available for everyone, whether you live in a big city or not. Within the European Union, the aim is to make this a reality before the end of 2020. North America and parts of Asia are also making huge strides in a short time here. In other places it might take a couple more years.

Conclusion

5G is the next step for mobile networks. It’ll make for faster connections and create all sorts of new technological possibilities. Lags during gaming and streaming on your smartphone will become a thing of the past. What’s more, we’ll be able to use smart devices in the health sector, agriculture, and all sorts of other sectors much more effectively. The possibilities are endless. Simultaneously, however, we have to be wary of the possible consequences this will have for our privacy. Only time will tell, but it can never hurt to be careful!

Cybersecurity analyst
David is a cyber security analyst and one of the founders of VPNoverview.com. Interested in the "digital identity" phenomenon, with special attention to the right to privacy and protection of personal data.

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  1. Thank you. One thing I found which was missing in your article was the effect on security of using a VPN over 5G. Will it help or not? I imagine that security-wise, 5G is no different from 4G wrt VPNs. Am I right.

    • As far as we can tell right now, 5G, compared to 4G, shouldn’t make a difference security-wise when it comes to combining it with a VPN.

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